In this inspiring memoir, LaBelle chronicles his life from early childhood through adulthood, juxtaposing the parallels of his life and personality before and after his diving injury. Fiercely independent and a bit of a daredevil, the author highlights how his disability changed the way he approached obstacles, though he still faced them head on—and never let his adventurous spirit wane. LaBelle’s transparency and raw honesty throughout is engaging and motivational; his zeal for living jumps off the page, though he never shies away from dark moments amid his many hospitalizations and operations. His story is of a man fighting, surviving, and adapting, of course, but it’s also one of embracing possibility, as he recounts constantly seeking change and taking opportunities that came his way, such as a new job or a thrilling vacation destination with a friend or family member.
LaBelle writes with engaging clarity and humility, noting that he doesn’t think of this book as “some type of guide to life, but as just one example of the possibility of living a life with a catastrophic injury.” In that, it succeeds with style and power. Fans of personal stories of triumph in the face of adversity will cheer as LaBelle pushes through his personal narrative to highlight how life is what you make it no matter the challenges set in your path.
Takeaway: Inspiring memoir of living life to the fullest as a quadriplegic.
Comparable Titles: Eddie Ndopu's Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw, Rebekah Taussig's Sitting Pretty.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
James LaBelle and his friend Dave cruise around town with some girls on a sunny September Day in 1969. They decided to stop and cool off in Lake Independence in Hennepin county, Minnesota. James remembers the waters were shallow, but not unlike the familiar Lake Koronis where his family had a cabin. He jumped off the dock at a nearby resort and fractured his spine, severing his spinal cord at the C5, C6 vertebrae.James writes the story of his life before and after that pivotal moment of paralysis. After the accident, James would have further surgery to reroute healthy nerves above the injury to help him regain some mobility. He never saw himself as "bound" or "confined" to a wheelchair; he said, "my chair gives me freedom."
James would learn to adapt to his this new life with quadriplegia. He found work-arounds when buildings had no ramps or wheelchair access. He learned how to drive an adapted car. He also traveled to more than 23 countries. His accounts of friends and caregivers stepping up during those adventures were the best parts of his life's story. Many strangers also stepped in to aid in his care, which I'll mention later.
James studied psychology and then law at the University of Minnesota. He passed the bar in three states, but didn't find many opportunities to work full time. Law is competitive, he said, and the path he took to get his law degree looked different from the traditional lawyer. But he said some people also thought a lawyer in a "wheelchair" meant that person had mental deficiencies as well. I should add that he explained how the U.S.'s Social Security Disability made it difficult to receive aid and work. James worked as an advocate for children in custody cases, as well as those facing eviction. He provided legal assistance as a volunteer with Catholic Charities.
While James often had thoughts of suicide during low periods of isolation, he didn't act on feelings. He had multiple people care for him who became lifelong friends. He met a wonderful woman, Kathleen, and just knew their relationship would work out. He became a father to Sean and had new adventures with him.
James suffered losses, endured pain, and ongoing medical problems, but he looked past his circumstances. He saw beautiful places, enjoyed great food and companionship. His is a story of someone who has a rich, full life because he kept going. If he had chosen death, he'd have missed out on so many wonderful things.
"I'm not trying to be a role model, just a possibility." James said. "There are obstacles, and people may not always treat you properly, but there is progress. My story is one of many that doesn't choose death over paralysis. It's just not a story that gets told often enough."
I requested an advanced copy of James' book because his story reminded me of another person I admire: Joni Eareckson Tada. I remember finding her book Joni at a garage sale. I was about 8 years old, and my Grandma Pringle bought it for me. Joni Dove off a dock into the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia on July 30th, 1967. She became paralyzed from the neck down. Her sister Kathy said a crab bit her foot, which prompted her to warn Joni. She saw her sister floating face down in the water and saved her life.
I mentioned her story for two reasons. They have similar experiences, and they both wrote about their lives. James story lacked bridges to his message. I felt like I was reading a journal, which is fine, but I found myself skipping to find out what happened next. I did learn things; I just like to have those set-ups and rewards.
Thinking about Joni's memoirs, I could see a writer's guide. She uses her story to say something impactful by anchoring the narrative to a central idea. Her life story provides lessons that readers can take away with them. James stories do as well. He just needed to edit some of the minor details strengthen the whole. I think Joni would agree with James and other disability activists who speak out against those who advocate giving up this life after paralysis. James and Joni have lived well. In fact, they've outlived their projected life expectancy. They just needed to use a wheelchair.
After reading his memoir, I thought of this connection and a new title came to mind as well for James' story: "Free-Wheeling: My Life After Paralysis." He wrote about his love of motorcycles and cars. He talked about when he worked on them by himself or with his Dad. I waited for him to show the connection, but instead I connected those, which isn't bad. But he could use those stories to connect all the way wheels have helped him make lasting memories in his rich, full life.
Strangers intervened in his life several times to help him or protect him, to give gifts of time or resources to him. That too is a great connection. He honored so many people in his life's story. Tears came to my eyes when he talked about a stranger feeding him and his buddy Mark while on a European vacation. James and Mark ate spoiled Chinese food one day and became sick. The next time they had "iffy" food they went hungry. The stranger brought these sardines and potatoes he had cooked and fed them at no charge. Another time, Mark went to straighten out their passports, and two train station employees aided James off a train returning to where he and Mark had just left. He would have been alone, his chair in pieces next to him, and no one he knew to help him. The first Christmas with Kathleen and baby Sean he tells of a man handing him and ornament outside a Hallmark store.
I enjoyed this journey with James. He didn't let his disabilities derail him from going after the desires of his heart. With his legal knowledge, he also became an advocate for people who have no voice. He tells the early and the continuing story of people making changes in accomodating those who have disabilities in the U.S.. James didn't let his circumstances change how he saw life. He has survived through many medical challenges to his body. He doesn't give up. He has too much to live for, and I think he has "run his race well" using a wheelchair to do it. I thank him for letting me vicariously travel with him.